Ritzy Grits: A Down-home Staple Gets Class

March 31, 1991|By Lynn Williams

Grits -- they're not just for breakfast anymore.

DOr, to be more specific, they're not just for the kinds of breakfast enjoyed by good ol' boys called Bubba who drive around in pickups with gun racks in their rear windows and coon dogs named Blue in back.

As the previous paragraph attests, those not born in the heart of the Southland can be snooty about grits.

Many Northern types share the views expressed by a former Miss America, who was rash enough (and on a visit to Georgia, yet!) to sniff "What are grits? It sounds so awful!" (The New Yorker's comment, naturally, did not endear her to Americans below the Mason-Dixon Line, where they know all about both grits and beauty queen protocol.) Even President Jimmy Carter didn't do much more to raise the fortunes of his namesake dish -- remember "Grits and Fritz?" -- than he did the fortunes of the Democratic Party.

Yankees -- and here we'll include Marylanders, who seem to have seceded from Dixie in favor of homogenized "Mid-Atlantic States" status -- don't know what they're missing.

For the uninitiated, here are a few grits "basics." Grits are hominy that has been dried and coarsely ground. Hominy, which was an American Indian staple, is made by soaking corn kernels in a weak lye solution until they swell up and burst their hulls, then washing them well and boiling them. Some Southern historians name hominy as "the first American food" -- when Capt. John Smith and his settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607 they were met by Indians bearing steaming bowls of hominy.

(Whether "grits" is a singular or plural noun is still a matter of controversy, even among Southerners themselves. But we'll stick with the plural form anyway; after all, like potato chips, you can't eat just one.)

Down south, grits are a breakfast tradition, whether served in a bowl topped with milk and a knob of butter, or slathered with red-eye gravy, lavishly salted and peppered and served alongside country ham. But Grits Belt cooks have also taken their ugly-duckling dish and, Pygmalionlike, brought out its glamorous side. Dolled-up grits often turn up as star main dish items at hunt brunches and elegant buffet luncheons.

One of the food's gourmet advocates is Bill Neal, owner and executive chef at Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., and author of "The Good Old Grits Cookbook" (Workman, $7.95). According to Eating Well magazine, the chef "elevates grits to haute cuisine" with a signature dish called simply "shrimp and grits," a bed of cheese grits topped with shrimp sizzled with mushrooms and scallions in spicy oil.

Until the early 20th century, when Southerners began to travel more and become more cosmopolitan, grits were just a simple, filling staple food and a good source of carbohydrates, according to Linda Carman, director of consumer affairs at Martha White Foods Inc. The 90-year old Nashville company produces Jim Dandy Grits, as well as a variety of baking products and packaged mixes.

Grits' image as a party food began perking up about the same time as other down-home country products, from homemade preserves to patchwork quilts, began to be seen as desirable and even upscale, she comments.

"My mother grew up in Georgia, and her father smoked hams," she says. "When she could get a sugar-cured ham, she liked it better, because it was something she didn't have every day. Smoked ham was seen as nothing special -- it was just a way of preserving the meat."

Now, of course, real country smoked ham is much more of a rarity, and there are fewer women at home to make hot biscuits from scratch each day. So is it any wonder that these foods are now seen as "special" and worthy of company? Or that their old Southern breakfast-table companion, grits, should have been reborn in a variety of new party guises, from jalapeno grits casserole to Cheddar grits souffle?

Grits have been on Ms. Carman's mind -- as well as in her mouth -- lately; as the company's home economist, she is in charge of the test kitchen, where she has been trying out recipes submitted for this year's World Grits Festival recipe contest. The top prize money for this year's competition was upped from $100 to $1,000, putting it in the recipe big leagues and attracting more than 300 entries from all over the South, and a few Northern states as well. Over the past few weeks, she has been fixing promising recipes from the main dish, side dish and dessert categories, and sampling them with the panel of judges.

Creativity counts, Ms. Carman says, and she is annually amazed with the variety of uses people find for grits, some of them surprisingly sophisticated. Previous winners have included everything from peach cheesecake to an Italian-inspired grits gnocchi layered with Gruyere.

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